The roles of men and women in society vary greatly from culture to culture. To learn about things like dating, gender discrimination, women’s safety, and other such topics you should consult guidebooks or talk to people who have experience in the culture, but here is some basic advice for men and women.
Let’s face it; “Baywatch” hasn’t helped the image of the American woman. In many countries and cultures, American women are seen as morally/sexually loose. If you wear culturally inappropriate clothing, move too quickly in a relationship, or flirt overzealously, you will not help that perception. If anything, behave conservatively at first until you figure things out and establish your reputation.
Compared to Iowa City, incidences of harassment are generally far more common in many other cities around the world. When I was studying in Jerusalem and the West Bank, I often received a lot of attention from men, such as staring and comments as I walked by. In that culture, it is inappropriate for men to do that, and they seldom do it to local girls. I received such negative attention because I was foreign. Here’s the key: I ASKED LOCAL WOMEN WHAT TO DO and they had some great advice. My friend who studied in Venezuela had a different experience. She also received a lot of attention and harassment, but so did her female Venezuelan friends. In that culture, it is expected. She learned to ignore it, as did other women.
Again, if you want to date, figure out how the locals do it. Ask a host family member, a local friend, etc. Women and men should generally be more cautious than they would in the U.S. I know of one woman in Spain who was invited to a man’s house. She agreed thinking it was only friendly, but he had other ideas. To him, if a woman entered his room, it meant that they were going to have sex. To provide another example, several of my friends in France have trouble understanding the American concept of casually dating several people at once. To them, if you date, you are in a relationship. Sure, you can break up as soon as you want, but if you date two people at once, you are cheating. The point is to realize that there are cultural differences.
Many students abroad have great friendships with locals of the opposite sex. Just remember that Americans are usually much more accustomed to that idea than other cultures are.
Be careful at first, and figure things out with the advice of a local friend. Respect the culture – you are not there to change it, but to learn about it.
Have fun, experience life, but understand and respect the differences between your home culture and your host culture.